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Sunday, 26 March 2006

Under Siege: Zimbabwe's Human Rights Defenders; Raymond Majongwe

In December, Raymond Majongwe became the third critic of Zimbabwean President Robert G. Mugabe's government to be placed under virtual country arrest when security agents seized his passport.

Earlier that same month, authorities had seized the passports of two other government critics: newspaper owner, Trevor Ncube; and Movement for Democratic Change official, Paul Themba Nyathi.

Majongwe, who is secretary general of the Progressive Teachers' Union of Zimbabwe (P.T.U.Z.) and a general council member of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (Z.C.T.U.), was returning from an International Labor Organization workshop on H.I.V. and AIDS in Nigeria when immigration officials at the Harare International Airport approached him and told him they were withdrawing his passport.


He says that although no explanation was given for withdrawing the passport, the move did not surprise him: "It did not surprise me because this regime is determined to thwart all dissenting voices."

Majongwe has first hand experience of how the government of President Mugabe deals with its critics.

In October 2002 he was arrested twice following a national teachers strike launched by the P.T.U.Z. He was first arrested on Oct. 9 and charged under Section 17 of the Public Order and Security Act (P.O.S.A.) for allegedly disrupting classes and threatening teachers.

The Public Order and Security Act was enacted in January 2002 and it imposes severe restrictions on civil liberties and criminalizes a wide range of activities associated with freedom of assembly, movement, expression and association. The Act makes it an offence punishable with imprisonment or a fine for "any person who, acting in concert with one or more other persons, forcibly disturbs the peace, security or order of the public or invades the rights of other people."

The Act violates Zimbabwe's obligations under international human rights law, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights.

Following his 2002 arrest, Majongwe was held in police custody for 48 hours, during which time he was badly assaulted by police officers, sustaining injuries to one of his eyes, both his arms and several ribs. He did not receive medical treatment until his release on Oct. 11.

On Oct. 16 he was re-arrested for allegedly disrupting activities at Harare schools by purportedly trying to force teachers into joining the strike. He was taken to Harare Central police station and later transferred to Chitungwiza police station. From there he was driven to a place outside town, where he was blindfolded and tortured. Electric shocks were applied to his genitals and mouth. Police officers ordered him to call off the strike, to disband the P.T.U.Z. and not to make any statements to the press.

He was released on Oct. 21, after the court found that the state had failed to make its case against him.

Now, three years later, and following another amendment of the country's constitution, which provided for the withdrawal of travel documents from all Zimbabweans who are perceived to be enemies of the state, authorities seized Raymond Majongwe's passport.

Z.C.T.U. information officer, Mlamleli Sibanda says the amendment to the constitution is a retributive counter-action by the government after the entire ruling Zanu-PF leadership and government ministers were slapped with travel sanctions by the international community.

"It is a mischievous act of flagrant disregard of the freedom of association and movement. Rights which the government of Zimbabwe ratified under Convention 87 [Freedom of Association and the Protection of the Right to Organize] of the International Labor Organization," Sibanda says.

While the passports of Trevor Ncube and Paul Themba Nyathi were returned within weeks, it would be a month before Raymond Majongwe's passport was returned.

Arnold Tsunga, director of the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, in an interview with SW Radio Africa (Jan. 18) says Majongwe's passport was returned after a letter of demand was sent to the police. The letter stated that the seizure was unlawful and that the police had no legal basis for holding onto Majongwe's passport.

He describes the return of Majongwe's passport as a small victory, which has no political significance in that the government of President Mugabe will comply with the rule of law where there is no threat to the balance of political mapping in the country.

Tsunga warns that once the Zimbabwean government has sorted out the regulatory framework, which is the precondition for the amendment to work, it will be no surprise to see it "begin to selectively target individuals, especially human rights defenders; who are seen as an impact in terms of the world knowing what is happening in the country and in terms of influencing the grassroots movement."

This article was first published on the World Press Review.

Sunday, 12 March 2006

Under Siege: Zimbabwe's Human Rights Defenders; Netsai Mushonga

Netsai Mushonga, media coordinator of the Women's Coalition, an umbrella body of women's rights groups in Zimbabwe, says she is angry with the law and system of governance in Zimbabwe.

In the first week of November 2005, security agents subjected her to 50 hours detention for organizing a weekend workshop for church leaders and training them in using non-violence as a tool for dispute resolution. The workshop also was intended to raise awareness of non-violence and methods of non-violent civic protest as alternatives to the culture of violence that is prevalent in Zimbabwe.

She says the workshop was successful and oversubscribed: "we got people talking of injustice and violence in their community and how they can overcome these non-violently."

The workshop also marked the start of Mushonga's ordeal because a day after the workshop had ended security agents were making intimidating telephone calls to those who had attended the workshop. The security agents wanted to know who had organized the workshop, what it was about and what was discussed in it.

They later phoned Mushonga and asked her to present herself at the Harare Central Police Station.

"The police stressed that it was to my advantage to cooperate with the police," she says.

On Nov. 7, Mushonga reported to the Harare Central Police Station as she had been instructed. She was surprised to find the whole section had been waiting for her.

She was taken into an office that looked like a reception room and asked if she had been responsible for organizing the workshop. They told her that the workshop had been a political one and that she should therefore have informed the police in advance as dictated by the Public Order and Security Act (P.O.S.A.).

P.O.S.A. was made into law in January 2002 and is one of the most extensive and repressive pieces of legislation in Zimbabwe. The Act is most commonly used against the normal activities of journalists, civil society bodies, trade unions and opposition political parties.

Sections 24 to 31 of the Act lay down conditions for the holding of public gatherings. Anyone who wishes to organize a public gathering must notify the police four days in advance (sec. 24). The police may then place restrictions on the gathering (sec. 25) or prohibit it entirely (sec. 26) if they have "reasonable grounds for believing" the gathering will result in public disorder, a breach of the peace or obstruction of any thoroughfare. The organizers of a gathering are required to "notify" the police; the section does not state that the police must "give permission."

These provisions are regularly misunderstood or deliberately misapplied by the police who have raided private houses where clearly private meetings have been taking place, and broken up consultative trade union meetings. The police have even been found sitting in on ordinary leadership workshops of the opposition party. At one point, the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions had to obtain a High Court order barring the police from attending their executive committee meeting.

Section 26 of the Act has been ruthlessly applied within the definitions to prevent opposition to the Zimbabwe government from organizing and even to prevent sitting opposition political party M.P.s and councilors from holding report-back meetings with their constituents.

Although Mushonga explained that the meeting was about peace and non-violence, the police insisted the meeting was political because it discussed the history of Zimbabwe.

"They seemed worried that we mentioned Gukurahundi," she says.

Gukurahundi, which means "the early rain which washes away the chaff before the spring rains," is a euphemism used to describe the killing of an estimated 20,000 civilians by President Robert G. Mugabe's Fifth Brigade military unit in the Zimbabwe provinces of Matabeleland and the Midlands during the early to late 1980's.

The police detained Mushonga until late in the evening before releasing her and telling her to return to the station the next day.

On Nov. 8, she went back to the Harare Central Police Station as she had been instructed.

Narrating her ordeal on Kubatana.net, an online community for Zimbabwean activists, Mushonga says when she arrived at the station she was led through corridors to the offices of Zimbabwe's secret police, the Central Intelligence Organization (C.I.O.).

After four hours in the custody of the C.I.O., one of the operatives informed her that under P.O.S.A. the police have a right to be informed of any gathering, including even birthday parties and church gatherings, and that she can get a lawyer if she wants one. The C.I.O. took three copies of her fingerprints; charged her with holding a public gathering without informing the police, and locked her up in a holding cell for two nights.

She gives a poignant and now all too familiar account of the terrible conditions under which Zimbabwe's human rights activists are kept when they are in police custody. She shared a cell with 10 other prisoners. The cell approximately measured six meters by six meters. The toilet did not flush and the prisoners used a newspaper to cover the excrement in an attempt to make the stench more bearable. The 10 prisoners had to share three lice-ridden blankets.

"With my short-sleeve blouse, I cannot take the lice bites and resolve to spread my newspaper on the floor and sleep there.

"After turning and tossing forever, sometimes just sitting up straight since the floor is cold, dawn finally comes," she says.

During her incarceration, she became angrier and angrier by the minute.

"Why am I in prison? Did I hurt anyone? But I can't be angry at the police either. One of them took away my newspaper and spent five minutes apologizing and explaining why he has to do it," she says.

When Mushonga was released from custody on Nov. 10, the police told her they would be preparing a docket and later send her a summons to appear in court. Her lawyer, however, told her that she had been released because the attorney general's office had thrown out the case. There had been no case to start with and the police therefore had to release her after the mandatory 48 hours.

Mushonga describes her mood as she was going home:

"I feel angry. A fire has been ignited deep inside me. I expect that people around me, my friends and colleagues, would be angry with me but they are not. They are angry with the law and the system. They also realize I have been a victim. It's one thing to talk of injustices; it is another to be a direct victim. I now know what P.O.S.A. means. I now know about unlawful arrests and detentions. Non-violence principle number four has taught me that unearned suffering is strengthening."

Sokwanele, a Zimbabwean civic action group, says the Public Order and Security Act of 2002 remains in force and is for purely political ends — to keep ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF) in power.

"P.O.S.A. has indeed inhibited both political opposition and civil society from organizing mass protests against government policies and the effects of economic collapse. Normal political organizing, meetings and campaigns have been obstructed. While many brave leaders are prepared to defy what they see as an unjust law, the rest of the community is thoroughly cowed by the prospect of becoming victims of police action.

"Even the threat of arrest is terrifying in light of the inhuman conditions in police cells and the risk of torture at the hands of sadistic, politicized police officers, both uniformed and non-uniformed," Sokwanele says.

The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights, a joint program of the World Organization Against Torture, described Mushonga's arrest as arbitrary and said it violated the provisions of the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on Dec. 9, 1998, in particular articles 5(a), which states that "for the purpose of promoting and protecting human rights and fundamental freedoms, everyone has the right, individually and in association with others, at the national and international levels to meet and assemble peacefully."

This article was first published on the World Press Review.

Monday, 6 March 2006

Britain Criticized for Tagging Asylum Seekers

The British Home Office has been criticized for forcing refugees to wear an electronic bracelet on the wrist or ankle.

A monitoring unit is then installed where the individual resides. During periods in which the individual is required to be at home, the tag sends a signal to the monitoring unit and then to the monitoring control center.

The move is part of the government's New Asylum Model to improve the authorities' "Contact Management" of asylum seekers.

Section 36 of the Immigration and Asylum (Treatment of Claimants) Act of 2004 allows for the electronic monitoring of those liable to detention under the Immigration Acts. This includes asylum seekers, illegal entrants, those found working in breach of their conditions of stay, those who have overstayed, people subject to further examination at a port of entry, and those refused leave to enter.

Electronic monitoring can be telephone reporting using voice recognition techniques, tagging, and tracking. Of all these methods, tagging is far more widely used by the Home Office.

During the passage of the Immigration and Asylum Act of 2004, then minister for immigration and citizenship, Beverley Hughes, stated that an electronic monitoring requirement would be imposed only with the consent of the individual. But once the Act was passed, the government did a volte-face and announced in November 2005 that consent is no longer a requirement.

Tony McNulty, the current minister for immigration, justified his retraction of the consensual clause: "Asking for the subject's consent is inconsistent with any other area of contact management. It hampered our ability to manage contact with people flexibly because the need of consent left us with very little recourse if the individual failed to give it or where, having initially agreed to be monitored electronically, they subsequently failed to comply."

The "recourse" now afforded to the Home Office is to threaten individuals with detention or re-detention if they resist tagging.

The National Coalition of Anti-Deportation Campaigns says the government's drive to curb immigration has resulted in a series of unnecessarily punitive measures and that "it is resorting to ever tougher measures at the expense of fairness."

The coalition maintains the British government is, in effect, turning homes into detention centers and blurring the boundary between the public and the private sphere.

Maeve Sherlock, chief executive of the Refugee Council, says there are concerns that the government has extended the use of tagging for asylum seekers without making clear why people need to be monitored in this way.

"When tagging of asylum seekers was introduced it was designed to be for those who had been in detention and it was done with consent.

"Recently, we have seen the consent rule removed and tagging used more widely. For instance, we have heard reports of asylum seekers being tagged after going for routine meetings with immigration officials. There should be published criteria that sets out which asylum seekers are liable to be tagged and why," Sherlock says.

Habib Rahman, chief executive of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, describes the use of tagging and tracking on asylum seekers as "unjust" and "cruelly stigmatizing."

"We welcome voice verification as potentially helpful to people who otherwise have to report in person to a police station.

"However, tagging and tracking are usually penalties for serious crimes and their use on asylum seekers is unjust and cruelly stigmatizing. Asylum seekers' only crime has been to ask for the U.K.'s protection from persecution and the vast majority comply with immigration control," Rahman says.

Maeve Sherlock adds that tagging is associated in the public's mind with criminal behavior and reinforces the idea that "asylum seeker equals criminal."

"Asylum seekers have broken no laws and should not be treated as if they have. Tagging should be used only when it is really necessary," Sherlock says.

Human rights activist, Sheila Mosley calls tagging and tracking asylum seekers "immoral" and "dangerous," and says it "should be stopped."

"This might help get unemployment figures down by giving British people jobs in making the tags and in monitoring the asylum seekers but it won't help refugees and asylum seekers. People fleeing persecution and who wanted to make new asylum applications might not do so because they are afraid of being tagged," Mosley says.

Writing in the online newspaper, Newzimbabwe.com, immigration lawyer, Taffy Nyawanza (Feb. 27) says it appears tagging can be challenged because the secretary of state has not implemented the statutory instruments necessary to make the provisions of the 2004 Act and the 2005 Procedure Rules a reality.

"Basically until this is in place, a requirement to comply with electronic tagging may appear to be outside the current rules … attempts last year to tag the Belmarsh detainees floundered for this reason, and they were all sent back from Court," Nyawanza says.

He advises anyone asked to comply with tagging to insist on the reasons for tagging in writing, to sign under protest because a straight refusal may be construed as non-compliance with a requirement of the secretary of state, which can lead to dire consequences, then to contact their legal advisors as a matter of urgency to challenge the tagging by way of judicial review.

"There is a strong argument to be made that tagging contravenes key human rights instruments that the U.K. is party to. In any event, tagging humiliates, stigmatizes and criminalizes asylum seeking," Nyawanza says.